Seattle to Portland High Speed Rail

One of China's High Speed Rail Stations

One of China’s High Speed Rail Stations

Currently travel times between the heart of Portland and the heart of Seattle look something like this. Google maps reports driving is 2 hours and 44 minutes. That’s with no traffic congestion. Flying theoretically takes 45 minutes, but that isn’t really to Seattle, it’s to SEATAC, which is nowhere near downtown Seattle. Taking the train takes a mind boggling 4 hours.

But seriously, those times are all a bit deceiving. Because of the unreliable nature of American transportation infrastructure and systems we end up with dramatically different averages. Driving is sometimes as low as 2 hours and 15 minutes, but regularly more than 3 hours if either end has traffic congestion. The train, if you take the Amtrak Cascades takes about 3 hours and 30 minutes, but on some rare occasions it actually makes the trip in 2 hours and 55 minutes when there’s no freight congestion. Flying is a joke if you need to get to the downtown core of Seattle or Portland. Getting to either airport from the city core takes somewhere between 20 minutes to an hour or more for each city. Again, it depends on the traffic and the mode. Using light rail on either end is a 30-35 minute trip to get downtown. So in the best case scenario, with arrival at the airport at least 1 hour before take off we’re talking about a 3 hour trip minimum, if not more. Putting air travel head to head with riding the train. There’s also the bus, which can take a variable amount of time but often similar to driving.

Vision for American High Speed Rail (Click for a great article on American high speed rail)

Vision for American High Speed Rail (Click for a great article on American high speed rail)

Now imagine for a moment if we had real high speed rail service from Union Station to King Street Station in Seattle. At a top speed of 200 mph, with the same stops that are currently in place, the travel time between stations would easily be covered in about an hour an 15 minutes. Maybe plus or minus 10 or 15 minutes. But either way, it would clearly be the fastest way to travel between the cities.

Just think about that type of travel between these cities. Think about what would be possible…

Portland Living, Seattle Jobs

All of a sudden, with a system like that in place it would open up the Seattle job market to thousands of more people in Portland and even introduce the possibility of living in Portland and working in Seattle. That’s a pretty crazy thought when one stops to think about it. A commute from Portland to Seattle would be no more than what a current commute from Tacoma to Seattle is via the Sounder Commuter rail, or some of the express buses from Everett or far eastern Bellevue or Redmond.

Suddenly, Portland would have the possibility of dramatically more business with Seattle, and obviously vice versa. It leaves one with a question of…

Why don’t we have high speed rail between these two cities?

It’s really kind of insane, and is representative of our ongoing paralysis in intelligent economic development between key cities in this country. Portland and Seattle are a prime example of this exact paralysis. The public sector can’t get it done. The private sector isn’t even allowed to touch the notion. It’s pure idiocy all the way down the decision flow.

As I see many people who live in Seattle, who would rather live in Portland, but are stuck living in Seattle because of the better work & career options this high speed rail thought always comes to mind. Also I imagine there are some people that might want to live in Seattle and work in Portland, but probably not. The general crux between these two cities is that Seattle has the good jobs, and Portland has the good life.

Now while you’re thinking that through, just imagine if we really managed to get our act together and include British Columbia and connect Vancouver. We’d effectively move into the realm of a serious powerhouse world class economic region of the world. Livability, jobs, and career options that exceed the rest of North America by many degrees.

I’d wrap up on these thoughts with a simple notion. Let’s kick some serious regional ass and get some high speed rail built. There’s no region we shouldn’t move into the next level in a serious way! It could start with the cities’ mayors getting together to start applying some real pressure on the respective states and nations to get their act together. It’s well past the time we should start building up the Cascadian Region in some serious ways, let’s stop piddling around and make this happen!

Chinese Railroads Aren’t the Advertised Achievement We’re Sold

I got another email from a train & transit buddy of mine recently. Talking about how the United States has fallen behind in the race to have high speed rail. Now before I leap into what I’m going to say, I want to make it abundantly clear that what we are achieving today, what we’re doing today as a nation is pathetic. I’m talking about 3rd world nation pathetic. While we ride on the backs of technology to carry the country along and any hope of growth, the real industry leaders of railroads, construction and manufacturing have fallen into dormancy. In large part because of the disgraceful behavior of the Government and the politicians pretending they can run and economy and build cities.

Simply, they will not and can never achieve what the US did and the titans of industry accomplished with the help of the American people between 1865 and 1915. I’m not saying everything is hunky dory and lovely from that era, I’m just saying we’ve become absurdly pathetic as a nation. We can’t achieve what we did then, we can’t innovate nor have we proven that we have the insight or drive to create, innovate, build and bring about a better future for everyone. Simply, the United States is absolutely a shadow of what it once was and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. We’re in for an extremely rude awakening that we have taken what our forefathers provided us, and rested heavily on our laurels to our children’s detriment. They are now the one’s, completely ill-prepared, to rebuild that level of achievement and growth. Something that the Chinese or some other country, that is actually less prepared to handle these things, will have to take the reigns anyway.

So let’s talk about a few comparisons, since everyone is so wowed by the Chinese and their railroad. Let’s get a better perspective about what the Chinese are achieving compared with the United States of 1865-1915.

The Chinese, in 50 years have built approximately 65,545 miles of railroad. This has been done with tooling and equipment that they’ve built using designs and technology created by the United States, Europe and other nations. It is technology that we used between 1865-1915, also a 50 year span, to build 129,774 miles of railroad by 1890, with a total of 250,000 miles by 1915. So really, the Chinese have accomplished a mere portion of what the United States did with technology that had to be developed when the US Railroads were being built. Many Chinese Americans also helped to achieve that, because here they innovate and create in ways that just wouldn’t happen in China itself (at least, there has been no evidence to the contrary, new ideas are extremely slow to take hold in mainland China, however a change of Governmental systems seems to do the trick, as Taiwan and Hong Kong have shown without doubt). To put it simply, the freer the market, the greater the achievements  The same can be seen for “free-market” Britain as well as “market driven” TGV, Shinkansen  etc. I could go on about this even more, but suffice it to say at 250,000 miles of railroad, no country on Earth has even come close to the achievements of American entrepreneurs and industrialists during 1865-1915. NOWHERE EVEN CLOSE.

For another comparison, let’s take speeds achieved by the Chinese on their high speed rail. The trains generally, now after several accidents causing dozens of deaths, travel at a safer 187 mph. Which is now, in 2012 the general speed of high speed rail. No real achievement has been made here. The TGV holds the highest speed at record and has areas that operate at higher speeds.

In the US, and I know this isn’t in the 1865-1915 range, but just stay with me for a minute. The New York Central in 1966 achieved 196 mph with the M-497. In the 1940’s the Milwaukee Road ran rail service over 100mph, hitting up to 120 mph for part of the trip. Note, that was the 1940’s. In 1934 the Milwaukee Road had a line running a peak of 103.6 mph, in 1934!

Ok, so those speeds are all great right, but let’s step back again to the years we’re really comparing. In 1905 the Pennsylvania Railroad ran a speed record at 127.2 mph near Crestline, Ohio with an E7sa 4-4-2 Atlantic. This same train was running rail service at 88-90 mph daily at the time. Something that makes the current Chinese rail operations seem not so spectacular, and the modern US rail operations a complete embarrassment. When we look at the averages, things look even better for our forefathers in the 1865-1915 period too, as our modern averages drop horribly low. But let’s not dig into how poorly we do today compared to our forefathers.

Another great thing the Chines have built is this fantastic sprawling train station shown below.

Again, don’t get me wrong. They’ve created an amazing station here. But let’s step back to that 1865-1915 America again just for a second and take a look at Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Grand Central Terminal.  Here are the upper tracks:

The suburban (as in sub-urban) level of the station. (Click for full size image)

The suburban (as in sub-urban) level of the station. (Click for full size image)

Oh yeah, and here’s the OTHER LEVEL of tracks.

The express level. (Again, click on for full size image)

The express level. (Again, click on for full size image)

That’s two decks of train tracks, built in 1913. All underground so it doesn’t block up massive sprawling space like the station shown in China. It was built that way to better service New York at its very core. But wait, that’s not all. Guess what else is under the station. If you said the 42nd street subway you’d be correct! The subway was running as of 1904, with the station finally open for business in 1915.

Summary

So what am I really saying by doing this comparison? It’s simple, I’m saying we’re not and should not be trying to compete with the modern Chinese. We should be competing with ourselves. Our own nation has languished and become weaker by the year. Our peak, militarily can be said to have happened in WWII, however our economic powerhouse was created in the span of 1865-1915. What was built then was what enabled us to power our way through WWII, out producing every nation on Earth. It was these years of economic strength that set us up to be able to create the greatest middle class to the world had known. But now we’re too busy fussing and begging the Government to build us out of our debt and misfortune. We’ve become a nation not of doers but of beggars and people subsisting on others. We’re in debt beyond our wildest dreams while we continue to out consume and further plunge into debt. We act like we own houses while we make massive mortgage payments, also known when translated as “death payments”. What we have achieved was basically set into motion in those years, 1865-1915, and we’ve done little to truly progress past that, except to increase our dependence on an unreliable and faulty Government.

What the Chinese have built is commendable, but it isn’t anything that the United States had not already accomplished almost a hundred years ago. It’s just we’ve fallen so far from our peak, our achievements have withered and we’ve forgotten and cared not what we once were as a nation.

The good thing is, the United States may find itself yet. We may find that maybe, just maybe there is another type of grand success and great life to be had. Maybe we don’t have to acheive these things. Maybe the Chinese are merely chasing our own failures while we’re finding our way to different things. I think we’ll still need to build our way out of the current doldrums, but we could still do it. It just won’t be anything like what we achieved in the past.

Simply, our forefathers have seriously kicked our ass, and there’s no way the modern generation, or next few generations are going to reclaim that pedestal. We’re too busy figuring out how to create “social media” empires of pettiness.

…and also, the next entry will be much more positive. I just had to get this written out as I’m tired of how the “Chinese are beating us”, when in reality we’re not being beaten by anyone but ourselves.

America Led the Way With High Class Rail…

…up until about 1955.

Now though, France smokes our efforts by orders of magnitude, while we clunk around in our slow poorly coordinated cars and roadways. Very sad, very pathetic.

“In 2007, SNCF generated profits of €1.1 billion (approximately US$1.75 billion or £875 million) driven largely by higher margins on the TGV network.”

If Amtrak was managed anywhere near SNCF and a measly $40-60 billion were put into the system (outside of the north east corridor, it can handle its own) the system could easily haul in this kind of profit!  Yeah, I said profit, NOT revenue, PROFIT!

Ugh. I could scream until the end of time, but I sadly concede that the US is pretty much finished when it comes to world class transport. Unless we get some real leadership and the market gets involved again, we’ve aligned ourselves to be relegated to third world transportation status.

Two references:

In addition we’re so close minded to our history, we won’t even allow (err, well, most politicians won’t – especially the Democrats) bidding to build out rail service!  What the…?